The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have some interesting decisions to make at first base this off-season. And by “interesting decisions”, I mean they’ve got a group of players making a lot of combined money, with none of them coming off a good year at the first base position. The three-headed platoon of Pedro Alvarez, Ike Davis, and Gaby Sanchez will probably make around $13.5 M, which is a bit misleading, since the Pirates probably won’t be keeping Alvarez and Davis. The more accurate figure would be anywhere from $7-9 M, depending on which one of the lefties is retained. Or, there’s the possibility that the price could be $4.5-6.5 M, in the scenario that Gaby Sanchez is replaced.
Here is a look at the decisions for each side of the platoon, along with the approach I would take this off-season.
The bulk of any platoon is going to be taken up by the left-handed hitter, as a team will be going up against right-handed pitchers far more often than left-handed pitchers. That’s not to say that the right-hander isn’t important. It’s just that the left-hander is more important.
The two options for the Pirates are Ike Davis and Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez is perceived as the better choice between the two, although a look at the career numbers shows that Davis has actually been better.
Pedro Alvarez Career vs RHP: .792 OPS
Ike Davis Career vs RHP: .813 OPS
Both hitters struggled in 2014, and this time it was Alvarez who came out on top, although the difference was minimal.
Pedro Alvarez 2014 vs RHP: .770 OPS
Ike Davis 2014 vs RHP: .765 OPS
Even in their best years, Davis was better than Alvarez. Davis had an .868 OPS in 2012, and Alvarez posted an .842 OPS in 2013.
Davis is due a raise over his $3.5 M salary in 2014. Alvarez is due a raise over his $4.25 M salary, and will likely end up making more than Davis in 2015. There’s also the issue of Alvarez moving over from third base, and the first base position being new to him. That shouldn’t be a huge issue, although the third base aspect does add a few twists.
For one, third base could add value to a team that might want to trade for Alvarez. Davis is strictly a first baseman. Alvarez could be seen as a third baseman who is a bounce back candidate defensively. If that’s the case, his numbers look much better than the similar numbers from Davis, since they could come from a tougher position to fill.
On that same note, if the Pirates believe that Alvarez can play third base, then he could have value to them as a replacement for Josh Harrison if Harrison gets injured, or if Neil Walker gets injured and forces Harrison over to second base. Neal Huntington has said that they still see Alvarez as a third baseman, although that’s something they’d need to say no matter what, in order to preserve his trade value.
My opinion is that the Pirates should go with Davis, while trying to trade Alvarez. They could get more in return for Alvarez on the trade market, as there has to be some team out there thinking he can still play third base. Meanwhile, Davis has been slightly better than Alvarez in their careers, and was about the same as Alvarez in 2014, and is cheaper. If you think one player is going to bounce back, then you’d have to think both guys will bounce back. If they both return to their career numbers, Davis would be the guy to have in a platoon. On paper it looks like Davis would be better, cheaper, and Alvarez would lead to a bigger trade return.
The Pirates added Gaby Sanchez in the middle of the 2012 season, hoping to find their solution against left-handed pitching at first base. He was having a down year with the Marlins, posting a .674 OPS against lefties before the trade. After the deal he bounced back with a .799 OPS to end the season, followed by a .987 OPS during the 2013 season. The Pirates might have to hope for a repeat of that bounce back heading into the 2015 season.
Sanchez saw his numbers drop a bit this year, posting a .746 OPS against left-handers. That was largely inflated by a huge month in May. He posted an OPS under .600 in three of the final four months of the season. He is heading into his final year of arbitration, and could end up receiving $3 M. That price might be a little too steep due to the risk that his final four months provides.
Another option at first base against left-handers could be Tony Sanchez. The Pirates had the catcher getting reps at first base with Indianapolis at the end of the season, although that was mostly due to the presence of Elias Diaz behind the plate in Triple-A. He did struggle against lefties this year, with a .515 OPS. However, he crushed lefties last year, posting a .934 OPS. The Pirates might need Sanchez behind the plate, so he may not even factor into the first base discussion right away.
The options here aren’t very good, although they aren’t exactly good on the left-handed side of the platoon. Gaby Sanchez might be the best option, just based on his career numbers, plus the fact that you wouldn’t be depleting the catching depth by moving Tony Sanchez to first base. Granted, Sanchez could catch if needed, but he wouldn’t be getting any time working on his game behind the plate, which is something he needs.
The Ike Davis/Gaby Sanchez platoon didn’t work out this year. It might be the best choice the Pirates have next year, just hoping that this was just a down year and those two players revert to their career numbers. Dealing Pedro Alvarez would be a smart move, as he probably still has enough value to get a decent return. Tony Sanchez could work as a catcher, either splitting time with Elias Diaz in Triple-A, or serving as the backup in the majors.
The free agent route doesn’t look like it would provide any better options. The best options — Adam LaRoche and Adam Lind — aren’t even free agents yet and could have their options picked up by their teams. In the event that one of those two players becomes available, I’d definitely make a run for them. LaRoche seems more likely, and wouldn’t be bad on a short-term deal. I always liked him when he was with the Pirates, and felt he was treated unfairly due to the fact that he was expected to carry a lineup, when in reality he’s more of a support player. I’m just not confident that he’ll end up a free agent this year.
No matter who the Pirates go with internally, they have to be hoping for a bounce back season, and a fast arrival to the majors for Josh Bell.
Links and Notes
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.